Iran Escalates Enrichment Toward Nuclear Threshold To Avoid Security Council Showdown
Iran’s former President Hassan Rouhani (right) is shown new centrifuges and listens to the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, on April 10, 2021. (Office of the President of Iran)

Iran Escalates Enrichment Toward Nuclear Threshold To Avoid Security Council Showdown

Weakened by internal unrest, Iran seeks to regain control of the narrative

Iranian state media reported Tuesday that the Islamic Republic had started to enrich uranium to a level of 60% in its underground Fordow nuclear facility, in an apparent effort to strengthen its position in talks to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

The semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency reported: “In a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has informed the agency that it has started enriching uranium to 60% purity at Fordow site using IR-6 advanced centrifuges.”

The report added that this move is in retaliation to the IAEA’S Board of Governors’ resolution last week, ordering Iran to cooperate with the organization’s investigation of uranium particles that were found in three different undeclared sites. The resolution stressed that “Iran must now provide the necessary cooperation,” with “no more empty promises,” and that it is “essential and urgent.”

Hugo Corden-Lloyd, an intelligence expert who specializes in Iran, told The Media Line that the Iranian move intends to send a message. Without wanting to diminish the threat of a nuclear Iran, says Corden-Lloyd, “the government of Iran is adept at using its nuclear program as a messaging tool for both domestic and international audiences.”

He believes the enrichment boost is intended as a warning to Israel, the US, and Europe, and as an attempt to regain control of the current narrative. Iran has been seen to be weakened in recent months due to the ongoing civil protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in morality police custody, and the way demonstrations have been covered by the international media.

Uranium enrichment can serve various purposes, depending on its level. According to the World Nuclear Association, natural uranium contains 0.7% of the U-235 isotope, the component that contributes to the fission process. To create nuclear energy, the uranium is usually enriched to a level of 3-5%, but can even reach 20% for some special fuels, while 90% enrichment is needed for a nuclear weapon. In 2015, before the first nuclear deal was signed, Iran was enriching uranium to a level of 20%. The deal limited Iran to enriching uranium only to 3.67% for energy purposes.

France, Germany, and Britain condemned Tehran’s move to start enriching uranium to 60% and said in a joint statement that this level of enrichment “has no credible civilian justification” and “it carries significant proliferation-related risks.”

Dr. Mohammad Alzghool, a Jordanian researcher on Gulf Cooperation Council and Iranian affairs and head of the Iranian Studies Unit at the Emirates Policy Center in Abu Dhabi, says that the latest Iranian escalation was cautious and calculated by its government. He told the Media Line that analysis within Iran indicates there is a large bloc within the political elite that expects the nuclear escalation to enable the Iranian nuclear issue to avoid referral to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

“Many experts expect that referring the Iranian nuclear issue to the UNSC via the snapback mechanism would not face the obstacle of a Russian or Chinese veto, as the snapback mechanism deprives the parties of the possibility of resorting to the right of veto,” he explains.

The escalation, Alzghool adds, “shows that the Iranian regime prefers to remain at the level of a nuclear threshold,” to reopen the door to negotiations with the West and relieve sanctions that keep the country’s economy crippled.

He notes that all the parties involved in the nuclear talks are still avoiding the discussion of its complete collapse. However, Alzghool explains that none of the parties is interested in returning to the exact same version of the 2015 agreement, each for its own reasons.

Therefore, says Corden-Lloyd, “It is in Iran’s interest to present their nuclear program in an advanced state, to put pressure on negotiators, and shore up their own negotiating position.” On the other hand, Alzghool notes that the Europeans are actively seeking a renewed and expanded deal, although “The Europeans were at the forefront of calling out and confronting Iranian nuclear violations.”

For this reason, he argues, “We can notice an increasing desire within Iranian discourse to exclude the Europeans from nuclear negotiations, especially within the conservative and hard-line bloc.”

Corden-Lloyd points out that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started eight months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has regularly spoken of developments as being a return to a “multipolar” world order. “Iran is likely to be hugely sympathetic to this movement,” he adds. “Closer relations with Russia and China would present significant military and economic opportunities, as well as marginalizing the ability of the US and Europe to dictate the terms of Iran’s global engagement.”

Alzghool argues, however, that, despite Russia’s major role in obstructing the chances of returning to the JCPOA, and has further developed Iran’s missile capabilities, the “Russian support may not be able to protect Iran from possible international sanctions as a result of such an escalation.”

Also, says Corden-Lloyd, “Russo-Iranian relations have always been defined by words rather than deeds. It will be interesting to observe whether the two nations develop their ties beyond rhetoric into a deeper economic and political alliance.”

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